Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Good Times (1974-1979, CBS), which is currently available in full on DVD.
Good Times stars ESTHER ROLLE as Florida Evans, JOHN AMOS as James Evans, JA’NET DUBOIS as Willona Woods, RALPH CARTER as Michael Evans, BERN NADETTE STANIS as Thelma Evans, and JIMMIE WALKER as J.J.
As an idea-driven series that aims to explore the sociopolitical struggle of life in the ghetto — through a domestic sitcom format that can personify a Black family for mostly white audiences — Good Times finds success in episodic notions that most accomplish this goal. Season Two is the strongest on these terms because of the quantity and relative quality of its corroborating notions, and although there’s a widening tonal schism between the social seriousness championed by the sincere Rolle & Amos and the comic shtick embodied by the goofy Walker, both sides are currently able to offer enough of the alternative to produce more wholly appropriate results. That is, even though there’s already a huge gap between the two — seldom reconciled — J.J. stories are still mostly grounded by enough dramatically relevant substance that he’s not yet so untethered to his surroundings that he destroys the series’ desired realism, and on the opposite end, stories with Florida and James don’t yet feel the need to be so overwrought and important in contrast to J.J.’s that they end up squeezing out the genre’s necessary laughs. Indeed, Three will try to overcompensate for J.J.’s foolishness — which is most pronounced in Two — by making the majority of its plots, including those featuring him, heavier. But with less of a connection to the series’ central concept, all of Three’s efforts (and its shoehorned yuks) feel even less fulfilling in comparison to this year’s, which benefit from the novelty that inherently provides for more affirmational topicality. That’s right; Two’s success is based simply on having more premise-related ideas — ones that reach higher highs of edifying drama and humanizing laughs than even its otherwise more narratively focused predecessor — because, as we’ve seen, it’s never well-supported by its leads, most of whom aren’t poised for conflicts that can emphasize clear depictions or personalize story beyond theory. And while I’m amenable to the idea that their genericness maybe renders the Evanses an Everyfamily in the tradition of domestic sitcoms’ past, thus making them relatable, a look at similarly conceived but character-rich offerings like Sanford And Son and The Jeffersons reveals that this distinction is key to why Good Times is never as effective, even at its peak… That said, if Two can’t avoid the show’s chronic inferiority with character, it’s still got the best ideas, and, here, that’s what matters most.
01) Episode 14: “Florida Flips” (Aired: 09/10/74)
Willona takes Florida to a women’s support group.
Teleplay by Jack Elinson & Norman Paul | Story by Norman Paul & Jack Elinson and John Donley & Kurt Taylor | Directed by Hebert Kenwith
Of all the year’s Florida/James outings, this one is the least connected to the series’ “life in the ghetto” drama — with a generically topical plot about gender dynamics that’s largely contrived. However, it centralizes Esther Rolle and packs in some of the biggest laughs of the season, particularly in the centerpiece at the women’s group, where we meet the recurring Weeping Wanda (Helen Martin), who’s so memorable that she elevates the entire half hour.
02) Episode 16: “J.J. Is Arrested (II)” [a.k.a. “J.J. Becomes A Man (II)”] (Aired: 09/24/74)
J.J. is falsely arrested for robbing a liquor store.
Written by Jack Elinson & Norman Paul | Directed by Hebert Kenwith
This is a great example of a show that’s built around J.J., and therefore is able to traffic in the broader, sillier comedy that he allows, while also boasting a story that has something relevant to say about being in the ghetto, as an 18-year-old black man is falsely arrested for robbing a liquor store. And beyond just the ideal narrative, there’s also some fine humor that displays the regulars well, especially Florida and James. Mel Stewart, Ron Masak, and James Greene guest.
03) Episode 17: “Crosstown Buses Run All Day, Doodah, Doodah” (Aired: 10/01/74)
Michael does not want to be bused to a white school.
Written by Roger Shulman & John Baskin | Directed by Hebert Kenwith
There are three episodes centered around Michael here in Season Two, and they’re all somehow affiliated to premise-related drama — which is unsurprising, given that his character is the best designed for these kinds of stories, while also being defined enough to earn realistic laughs. This is the sharpest of Michael’s trio because it actually puts him in conflict with his parents, as their opposing views on busing provides for a character-rooted differentiation that aids all of their usages. Of note: Ron Glass makes his first of two unrelated appearances.
04) Episode 22: “J.J. And The Gang (I)” [a.k.a. “The Gang (I)”] (Aired: 11/12/74)
J.J. becomes involved with a street gang.
Teleplay by Eric Monte & Allan Manings and Jack Elinson & Norman Paul | Directed by Hebert Kenwith
Among the show’s most famous two-parters, “J.J. And The Gang” combines J.J.’s foolishness with some setting-inspired drama, as the 18-year-old goofball accidentally gets himself involved with a dangerous street gang — a harsh reminder of life in the ghetto. Although Part I is mostly about setting up the climax in which he gets shot, there’s a propulsive tension underneath its more low-concept comedy that’s effective in raising the thesis-affirming stakes.
05) Episode 23: “J.J. And The Gang (II)” [a.k.a. “The Gang (II)”] (Aired: 11/19/74)
James plans to confront the gang member who shot J.J.
Teleplay by Eric Monte & Allan Manings and Jack Elinson & Norman Paul | Directed by Hebert Kenwith
Part II pivots from J.J. to James and thus accompanies a more serious tone, which then allows for some of the series’ intended didacticism, as the latter goes down to testify against the guy (Oscar DeGruy) who shot his son but then realizes, in the process, that the kid’s life has been so miserable (a product of his environment) that he can’t go through with seeking revenge. Amos really sells the drama, and the teleplay — coauthored by creator Eric Monte (this two-parter is his only credit after the first season) — ensures that this is a validating sample of what the show wants to be. Also, Richard Stahl, Lynn Hamilton, and Roger Aaron Brown guest.
06) Episode 25: “The Windfall” (Aired: 12/03/74)
James finds a bunch of stolen money and returns it… well, most of it.
Written by Allan Manings | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
With a story that not only reinforces the Evanses’ economic hardships — a drama affiliated with both their existence in the ghetto and desire to break out of it — but also makes room for one of the central players, James, to make an active choice that creates the conflict, this is an incredibly smart use of the series’ thesis, as it explores its intended dramatic point through the motivated behavior of a lead character, a basically good man in a desperate place. And this wise design creates a standout entry. Also, Amos ‘n Andy’s Alvin Childress appears.
07) Episode 27: “Florida’s Big Gig” (Aired: 12/31/74)
James is upset when Florida gets a job that he wanted.
Written by Bob Peete | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
Charlotte Rae and Dick O’Neill guest in this memorable outing that manages to find big laughs while also satisfying its topical ambitions, which come from an interesting notion about tokenism, as Florida is selected for a job over James because she’s doubly diverse: Black and female. This is a terrific idea for the series because it’s simultaneously issue-based, hinged upon the characters’ categorial identities, and relationship-based, as James’ individually established pride creates a natural conflict that again does what few Good Times can: channel its sociopolitical drama through its personified tangibles. And with strong hahas to boot.
08) Episode 29: “The Nude” (Aired: 01/14/75)
A woman asks J.J. to paint a nude portrait of her.
Teleplay by Dick Bensfield & Perry Grant | Story by Barry E. Blitzer | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
This popular excursion is the least dramatically sincere on this list, with a story centered around J.J. that’s primarily concerned with easy yuks that have nothing to do with the series’ loftier thematic intentions. Yet I feature it here because it reveals that, even though it’s designed for idea-driven hijinks that highlight Walker’s clowning, it’s still connected enough to J.J.’s depiction — as a free-spirited “artiste” — that it’s not a threat to the show’s established reality, and in fact, it actually uses some of Florida’s moralism to create a conflict, making it more character-supported than most, even in Season Two. Also, Carl Weathers guests.
09) Episode 31: “The Debutante Ball” (Aired: 02/04/75)
J.J. is excited to take his new girlfriend to a fancy ball, but her parents object.
Teleplay by Jack Elinson & Norman Paul | Story by Patricia Edwards | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
Another example of how offerings starring J.J. this year can still satisfy the show’s dramatic needs, this installment gets to have the fun of exploiting its comedically loudest figure by emphasizing the extremes in his depiction, while also indulging in some Jeffersons-esque classism that highlights the leads’ premised-based struggles in the ghetto. Accordingly, this is a fine showing for Season Two, addressing all parts of the series’ identity and in an appealing package.
10) Episode 32: “The Dinner Party” (Aired: 02/11/75)
The Evanses believe their neighbor has resorted to eating dog food.
Teleplay by Robert Fisher & Phil Naples and Allan Manings | Story by Robert Fisher & Phil Naples | Directed by Hebert Kenwith
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The Dinner Party” is the only segment out of Good Times‘ whole six seasons that I would classify as being enjoyable enough to stand alongside some of its contemporaries as one of the era’s most indelible half-hour samples. For even though it, as usual, claims an idea-driven comic story that, for once, isn’t centered around J.J., and thus has even less to do with the regulars and how the show has positioned them within the concept than usual, it yields a huge comic centerpiece that delivers the biggest laughs of the entire run. At the same time, it also claims a narrative that addresses the thesis, for its drama stems from the Evanses’ neighbor’s financial strain, and the point about her having to resort to eating dog food enables a sociopolitical rumination on the plight of people in the ghetto. As a result, these two exceptional notions — one premise-connected, the other outright hilarious — are far apart and have little bearing on/for the leads, but they’re nevertheless among the most successful ever employed by Good Times, and since the quality of its episodic ideas is how the show determines success, that’s how we have to determine success too. So, it’s an honest representation of what the series endeavors to be, with dramatic rewards that favor its identity and comedic rewards that favor its standing in the genre. An easy pick.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The I.Q. Test,” another Michael entry that allows for a blending of issues and laughs, “The Family Business,” which introduces future regular Nathan Bookman (Johnny Brown), and “My Girl Henrietta,” an additional J.J. show with humor and topicality. Of equal note but less distinction are “Florida Goes To School,” which puts Florida and James in a relatable conflict but with not enough comedy, and “The Houseguest,” which has some really funny moments in spite of its unideal story. I’ll also take the time here to cite “The Enlistment” for its one hysterical scene with J.J. at the doctor, and “Thelma’s Scholarship” for being among the best Thelma outings of the run. (Incidentally, I’m not a huge fan of the well-liked “The Encyclopedia Hustle” with Ron Glass; it’s a comedically average affair that isn’t a great display of the central drama.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Good Times goes to…
“The Dinner Party”
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!